There are only a few pages filled in Natasha Ford’s notebook.
But those few pages tell a powerful story of a young woman who was once a homeless teenage high school dropout.
On the very first page of Natasha’s notebook there is a pencil drawing of a crumbling brick wall. Supports have broken away and lay beside the wall.
“It’s my struggles,” the 21-year-old Natasha says as she gently passes her hand over the artwork she created several months ago. “I really didn’t have support. Everything I was dealing with was falling apart.”
Natasha is heading later on this day to take her college placement test. It is a day she always knew she wanted; she just didn’t know how she could get it done until she enrolled in United Way’s Project Rise.
Project Rise is a part of United Way of Greater Kansas City’s Decade of Difference initiative. It combines high school/GED completion, paid internships and career and education planning to re-connect “disconnected” young adults with the skills they need to put their lives back on track.
The Kansas City program is one of only four in the country operating as national Social Innovation Fund test site to tackle a troubling trend. As a nation, we have nearly six million young people disconnected from work or training/education during the critical years of young adulthood (ages 18 – 24) when most people are establishing careers. About 1.6 million of these young adults are like Natasha with more significant challenges, including having dropped out of high school. Communities are trying to find ways to re-engage these young adults because if we don’t, the cost is high: Each disconnected young adult who is not re-engaged is projected to cost taxpayers $170,740, plus additional social costs of more than $500,000 in things such as lost earnings.
Project Rise is a holistic approach that not only offers GED programs but addresses other barriers such as homelessness, childcare and transportation. Project Rise also helps participants plan for life beyond the program with post-secondary education support and connections to permanent employment.
This unique approach was exactly what Natasha says she needed.
Natasha dropped out of high school at the end of her sophomore year because it was becoming too violent. Ultimately, a fight she was involved in ended with her glasses being broken. Natasha didn’t have the money for new glasses. Her near-sightedness was so bad that she couldn’t function in a classroom.
Immediately after she left high school, she enrolled in a job training program. But it didn’t hold her interest.
Natasha then enrolled in an adult basic literacy program that offered GED classes. When she enrolled, Natasha had a job that required her to attend evening classes. But then she lost her job, and found herself couch-surfing staying with family and friends sometimes only for one night at a time. She had to stop going to the program because she couldn’t arrange transportation to the classes.
Natasha says she was getting concerned because she was getting older and beginning to age out of opportunities.
Then she heard about Project Rise.
“I didn’t want this program to fail,” Natasha says. “I needed it to work.”
She is quick to point out a reason for her success. “I had a lot of support from the teachers and the counselors,” Natasha says. There are other aspects of the program that helps young people like Natasha who have multiple challenges. Aspects that might seem insignificant to others – like a monthly bus pass. That pass, Natasha explains, allows participants more flexibility so they can focus on their academics and not worry whether they have a valid bus pass.
Natasha lives in her own apartment and is now enrolled to start at Penn Valley Community College.
Her first day of college is Jan. 13.
So how would Natasha draw that picture now? “I might not draw another wall. Maybe it would be a pathway. My struggles would be at the bottom and then it would show more of my successes… Or maybe I would tear down this wall or break it all together.
“I know that if I built it again it would be stronger. It would have support. It would be sturdy and straight.”